The four senses of Scripture provide us with another interpretive key for unlocking many spiritual treasures in the Bible This key can help us draw vital connections between the Old and New Testaments, the Catholic faith, and our own spiritual lives. With this approach, the people, places, and events of the Bible go from being distant realities, far removed from our day-to-day experience, to being relevant to our own lives and serving as models for us pilgrims on the Christian path.
Traditionally, there are four senses of Scripture, which are outlined in the Catechism, nos. 115-119:
- Literal Sense: “[T]he meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture.” The actual person, event, place, or thing described in the biblical text. The literal sense gives rise to the following three “spiritual senses.”
- Allegorical Sense: How those persons, events, places, or things in the literal sense point to Christ and his work of redemption.
- Moral Sense: How the literal sense points to the Christian’s life in the Church.
- Anagogical Sense: How the literal sense points to the Christian’s heavenly destiny and the last things.
The foundation for the four senses of Scripture is God’s unique way of communicating. Humans communicate primarily through words and actions. However, God communicates not only through his words and deeds, (CCC 53) but also through the very things he has created. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “That God is the author of Holy Scripture should be acknowledged, and he has the power not only of adapting words to signify things (which human writers can also do), but also of adapting things themselves [to signify other things].‘ (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 1, 10 emphasis added)
In other words, God not only communicates through the words of Scripture, but, since he is the Creator and the Lord of history, he gives special meaning to the things, people, and events mentioned in Scripture and uses them as signs to tell us something about his plan of salvation. This may occur even without the human author’s awareness, since God is co-author of Scripture.
The Four Temples
A classic example to demonstrate the four senses is the Temple. In the literal sense, the Temple was the actual building that once stood in Jerusalem, in which the Israelite priests offered sacrifice, the people worshiped, and God dwelt in the Holy of Holies.
But this Temple of the Old Testament has even more importance because God has used it to tell us about greater realities in the New Testament Jesus and the Christian life. Allegorically, the Temple points to Jesus, who said he was the true temple which would be destroyed and raised up in three days (John 2:19-21). Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was the place of sacrifice for the Jews, so does Jesus’ body house the perfect sacrifice on Calvary for all humanity.
The moral sense of the Temple is found in the Christian, whose body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Just as the Temple contained the awesome presence of God, so the bodies of Christians hold the presence of the Holy Spirit by virtue of their baptism. Anagogically, the Jerusalem Temple finds its eschatological meaning in the heavenly sanctuary, where God will dwell among us in our eternal home, as described in the book of Revelation (e.g., Revelation 21:22).
Sometimes associated with terms such as spiritual exegesis, typology, or sensus plenior, this method of interpreting Scripture is rooted in Catholic Tradition and has been used by many great saints, Doctors, and Fathers of the Church, and even by Jesus and the New Testament writers themselves. The Catechism, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and Pope Benedict XVI have encouraged the use of this traditional approach to Scripture.
How Jesus Interpreted Scripture
Jesus himself viewed people and things in the Old Testament as signs that point to him and shed light on his mission. For example, Jesus refers to the Old Testament account of Jonah and the whale as prefiguring his own death and resurrection: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth … behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:40-41).
Similarly, the New Testament writers understood how God uses things, people, and events of the Old Testament to tell us something about his saving plan. For example, St. Paul describes Adam as a “type” of Christ (Romans 5:14), a sign telling us about Jesus: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Indeed, Jesus is the new Adam, the father of a new humanity in grace, righteousness, and life (see Romans 5:15-19).
Here are a few other examples: St. Peter views Noah’s Ark, which saved people during the waters of the flood, as shedding light on the sacrament of baptism, which now saves Christians by our passing through the waters of the new covenant (1 Peter 3:20-21). Hebrews describes Israel’s tabernacle, high priest, and sacrifices as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Hebrews 8:5). First Corinthians emphasizes how Israel’s experiences of trials and failures in the desert were recorded in Exodus not for mere historical record, but to tell us something about the Christian life: “Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
The Church Fathers read the Scriptures in this way, with the firm belief that, since the Bible contains God’s inspired word, everything in it must have some significance for readers of every age. One of the most common themes found in the Fathers’ practice of spiritual exegesis is the relationship between the Exodus and Christian baptism. Just as the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, passed through the waters of the Red Sea, and headed toward the Promised Land, so are Christians freed from the spiritual bondage of sin and death by passing through the waters of baptism to begin their journey to the ultimate Promised Land, their heavenly home with Jesus.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his instruction to early Church catechumens (i.e., those preparing for baptism), beautifully elaborates on this theme:
You just know that the symbol of Baptism is found in ancient history … There [in Exodus] we have Moses sent by God into Egypt; here [in Baptism] we have Christ sent by the Father into the world; there is need to free the oppressed people from Egypt, here to rescue men tyrannized over sin in this world; there the blood of the lamb turns aside the Destroyer; here the Blood of the true Lamb, Jesus Christ, puts the demons to flight; there the tyrant pursues the people even into the sea; here the shameless and bold demon follows them even to the holy fountains; one tyrant is drowned in the sea, the other is destroyed in the water of salvation.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, PG, 32, 1068 A, as quoted in J. Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), P. 96.
Referring to this traditional approach to interpreting Scripture, John Henry Cardinal Newman writes, “It may be almost laid down as an historical fact that the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together.” (John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Arians of the Fourth Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1890), P. 405.)Why would the four senses be so important to orthodox faith?
Discovering the connections between the Old Testament, Christ, and the Christian life shows the continuity in God’s plan of salvation, allowing us to see more clearly that from the very beginning — from Adam and Abraham to Moses and the prophets — God has been preparing humanity for Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. This is why studying the Old Testament is vitally important for understanding Jesus and the essence of the Catholic faith.
Take, for example, the Old Covenant Passover lamb. In its literal sense, the paschal lamb was eaten by Israelite families as the central part of the annual Passover meal, which commemorated Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. But the spiritual senses show how God used that lamb as a preparation for understanding Jesus on the cross as the new paschal sacrifice and for understanding the Eucharist as the true Passover meal of the New Covenant, through which God delivers us from the spiritual bondage of sin.
More than Metaphors
We need to recognize, however, that the connections between the Old and the New — between the past, present, and future — are not arbitrary but are rooted in God’s plan of salvation. In other words, the four senses of Scripture are no mere metaphorical associations. This method of interpretation is not a creative enterprise in which one looks for nice images from the Old Testament that can help explain the Catholic faith. Rather, spiritual exegesis uncovers the great unity in God’s salvific plan as carried out in history. The Church Fathers, for example, didn’t invent the connections between the Exodus and baptism. Instead, they perceived the connections that were rooted in Scripture and history. They perceived that God orchestrated the Exodus event not only to liberate Israel from Egypt, but also to serve as a sign prefiguring baptism.
Similarly, St. John did not creatively devise connections between the Temple in Jerusalem and the temple of Christ’s body. Rather, he saw that God gave the Temple in Jerusalem to prefigure Christ. As the Catechism explains, “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.” (CCC 117) Theologian Henri Cardinal De Lubac similarly affirms:
[I]f, for example, the manna is really the figure of the Eucharist, or if the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb really pre-figures the redemptive death, the reason for this is not extrinsic [related] to resemblance alone, no matter how striking this may be. There is actually an “inherent” continuity and “ontological bond” between the two facts, and this is due to the same divine will which is active in both situations and which from stage to stage is pursuing a single Design — the Design which is the real object of the Bible.
H. De Lubac, The Sources of Revelation (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), p. 37
You Can Use the Four Senses
No doubt, understanding the four senses of Scripture is bound to transform your reading of the Bible. By using this Catholic approach to Scripture, you can more easily overcome the distance of time and discover the intimate solidarity that exists between the people of God in the Bible and your life in the Catholic Church today.
When we keep the four senses in mind, the biblical narratives become much more than stories from the ancient past. Whether we are reading the accounts about Abraham, the Temple, or the Flood, these age-old stories are no longer far removed from our lives today. Instead, they are intimately bound up with the present. As we saw above, the Passover is not merely a Jewish feast; it has become the essential backdrop for understanding the Eucharist. Similarly, as many spiritual writers have shown, Israel’s testing in the wilderness for forty years is a model for the trials and purifications in the “spiritual desert” or “dark night” of the Christian life.
Finally, the baptismal liturgy proclaims how the waters of the Red Sea or the Jordan River not only were instruments of redemption for the Israelites under Moses and Joshua, but also serve as preparations for understanding the redemptive waters of baptism. All these examples point to the fact that the same God who was fathering the ancient Israelites continues to work in similar ways with his children today. By calling our attention to the profound connections between the biblical world and the Christian life, the four senses of Scripture ultimately should lead us to our knees — to a deeper level of praise and thanksgiving for God’s magnificent story of salvation, which he continues to write in the fabric of history and in our very lives.